The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled nineteen-twenties lawns, dazed sixties streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.
–Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, “Semi-Charmed Life” (January 14, 2013)
I turn twenty-nine this week, so I have just 365 more days to enjoy life as a twenty-something. The sensation Heller describes here is one I’ve known intimately over the past nine years; it’s that sort of vague feeling that is especially alluring to us writers and aesthetes with good memories, and drives us to wax nostalgic at every possible turn. The experience of life is so rich and vivid that reaching ages when such spontaneity seems harder and harder feels like a genuine loss, even as we tell ourselves we’ll be able to bring it back on command. (If my New Year’s rotation of friend groups from every stage of life through my apartment is any guide, it’s something I can indeed do.)
I won’t pretend otherwise: I idolize youth. It may seem an odd fixation for someone with a risk-averse, intellectual bent and a mild Luddite streak. But it’s undeniable, and courses through my fondness for a high school sport, through my fiction, through the commitments that keep me at my work each day, believing in better options for the kids in the communities I work in. I don’t think the inevitable march of age is any reason not to revel in youth for as long as possible, and perhaps because I picture youth as a state of progression through stages of awareness and not some static state of innocence or naïveté, I’m not one who thinks it must be cast aside with time.
Those who know me well wouldn’t find it hard to concoct some sort of Freudian theory as to why I might think all of this, but I also just like kids. I’m drawn to the energy of people who haven’t been beaten down by routines, who still can see the potential of the future; for that matter, give me angst-ridden explosions of emotion over the resigned apathy of people committed to their paths in work and in life any day. This joie de vivre lies somewhere at the heart of my idea of the good life, and I will always be happiest around people who share it.
As I bring this mad, wandering past decade to a close, I have plenty of lost time I could lament; at twenty-seven, a birthday that left me oddly depressed, I did plenty of that. This time, though, I can take some time to marvel at it all, and know that I’m taking the best of it and putting it to some use. So here’s to twenty-nine, and to that thrilling sense of nowness, and to everything that may yet come in moments like that, even as I age. May those dreams continue for years to come.